Taking Time Off: A Harm Reduction Approach to Femme Labor
What is emotional labor, really? I mean, what does it look like? There is no way to have a comprehensive list of it. As my own awareness increases, my understanding of the emotional labor I exert gets more nuanced and complex, for instance, but here are some examples that range from innocuous to harmful to someone’s mental health in no particular order:
It’s asking your partner how their day was. It’s a phone call with your friend who’s going through a hard time. It’s taking the lead on a group project that would feel like a herd of cats otherwise. It’s being polite to your co-worker to maintain your professional reputation even though you’d rather have nothing to do with them. It’s saying “thank you” and “I’m sorry” even when it’s not needed, smiling, and using “I think” and “It’s just my opinion, but” and “Maybe” to begin your statements so that you aren’t threatening. It’s doing a favor for a family member even when it means having to deal with how it disrupted your day later. It’s holding back your own feelings, especially negative ones, so as not to burden someone else. It’s giving affection to others that may not get reciprocated. It’s showing up for the people who count on you on a daily basis despite feeling like a day off would be nice. It’s tending to your own hurt because it feels like there’s no one to count on. It’s dealing with the anger about being either sexualized or treated as a caretaker, even within queer community, and then dealing with the anxiety as you question your reality, and then dealing with the depression as you cope with the anxiety…
Let’s be clear- emotional labor is put on us as femmes. Despite the myths that further cause patriarchal harm that we like it, we need it, we wouldn’t know what to do without it, we’re made for it, we’re meant to do it, etc., because both emotional labor and femmes are undervalued, we carry the brunt of it (and if any of these resonate for you, they’re for you to say, not for anyone to tell you). Emotional labor skills can be learned and shared. They need not be associated with femininity.
So if you opt to boycott, retire from, or just plain quit doing femme labor, I support that. For others, you’re not interested in retiring. You enjoy a level of showing love through service, enjoy community building and connection with others, and your role providing emotional labor gives you a sense of meaning that feels positive for you.
For many femmes, though, quitting as an emotional laborer is daunting, scary, and feels nearly impossible. You don’t know any other way of functioning. Even if it’s causing harm, perhaps through a loss of sense of self or disconnection from your needs or autonomy over your time and energy, the thought of changing how you relate to others causes tension in your body and jumbles your mind. Femmes’ conditioning as emotional laborers often starts from a very young age, after all. You’re stressed and tired and sometimes you feel so upset because it seems like you’re doing everything and it’s unfair, yes, but how do you do differently?
If boycotting is too scary but you’d like to have a greater sense of control over your femme labor, here are some ideas for a harm reduction approach. If treating these as experiments or things to practice is less intimidating, please do so! There’s is no shame in the difficulty of practicing different ways of relating to your labor and others. It’s just that- practice.
A Harm Reduction Approach to Femme Labor
Exchange your labor for compensation
Rather than giving your labor for free, treat it as an exchange. Even if it’s still unbalanced, prioritizing receiving something (emotional, material, monetary, etc.) will help build your sense of worth. If you help your partner get going in the morning, can they help you out in some way later in the day? If you talked a friend through a break up, can they be the person you call next time you need support? Additionally, invest your labor in those who acknowledge, appreciate, and reciprocate your efforts.
Say no to little things
Often people ask things of us, but they’re not really framed as a choice. You’re just expected to say yes, as if it wasn’t a question. Play with saying no when the stakes are low.
Create positive reframes for boundary setting
Saying yes to something means saying no to something else, and saying no to something means saying yes to something else.
By not doing someone’s emotional labor for them, you’re building their independence, their problem-solving skills, their communication skills, and their emotional intelligence (basically all the things you’re good at already). It’s an opportunity for them to experience life and consequences. Further, it would be a disservice to protect them from because they will be less in touch with themselves as a result.
Setting boundaries allows you to maintain capacity to continue to show up sustainably. If you get burnt out you’ll have nothing to offer. In fact, you may become a burden on others (this is often something we try to avoid, but is entrenched in ableism).
People who care about you want to show you support if you give them the opportunity.
Caretaking isn’t inherently a problem, it’s when it is done to such an extent that our mental health is harmed as a result. If you like to care for others, you deserve to have a relationship with it that you enjoy!
Rest is absolutely political, radical, and revolutionary.
Develop your sense of identity outside of your service for others
Your labor does not define you or your value. When you have a little down time, what do you like to do, after resting? What grounds you? Maybe it’s using your body a certain way, baking for fun, reading, crafts, or taking yourself to the movies. Be in touch with your strengths (outside of caretaking), what you enjoy, and what you’re good at.
Ask people you trust to hold space for you to practice expressing anger
We often call this venting. But venting can have a negative connotation and be easily dismissed. Bring some intention into expressing your anger. Explicitly establish consent with someone who you know you can talk openly to so that you feel safe getting in touch with your anger and they understand they’re making room for you to explore difficult feelings. The anger may or may not be about them. The point is for you to build your comfort experiencing anger.
Make a list of what your needs were when others needs were prioritized
This may be challenging to get in touch with. Don’t overthink it. Usually it’s something like, “I didn’t actually want to be on the phone for an hour because I was working on homework, but they seemed really upset.” This also may be difficult to tolerate. Writing a list of your needs that got put off can bring up self-blame and madness. That’s not the point, in fact, if these feelings come up, be gentle with them! The point is to get in touch with your needs, even just a little, and increase your awareness so that in time you can increase your practice of setting boundaries in order to prioritize yourself.
Take time off
It’s labor, so taking time off is essential. Often space helps us collect our thoughts, helps our bodies regulate, and makes room for our needs to surface. Notice if you have increased clarity and your mental health improves when you take space. If you’re used to doing a lot, start with small increments of time off at first to recharge. You can make it formal if your housemates or family will get behind not disturbing you, or you can just know for yourself that you’re not answering your phone, and for those thirty minutes you will have secretly taken time away from being busy. Whether it’s five minutes, an afternoon, or a week, the goal is to take it easy and know you still always have worth.